October 2011

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By Robert Barnett, Columbia University


On September 24, following a meeting of the leaders of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism in Dharamsala, Northern India, the Dalai Lama issued a 4,000-word statement in Tibetan and English entitled “Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation”. The document—the full text is available here—uses theological concepts and Tibetan terms that can be confusing, and what is most interesting about it is that it is not about the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation: it is about his succession, which we learn is something very different. So in this note I’ve tried to sketch out some of the practical implications that seem to lie behind the statement.

The statement is in large part a response to a legal document promulgated by the Chinese authorities in 2007 which declared that only the Chinese government is allowed to decide who is or is not the reincarnation of a lama (see here and here (PDF) for more). That regulation gave Beijing alone the authority to select the next Dalai Lama and so set the stage for a major dispute once the current one dies. The Dalai Lama’s statement, which describes the Chinese claim as “outrageous and disgraceful”, makes clear his position on that issue.

The statement also relates to his decision earlier this year to end the “Ganden Phodrang” system, the name given to the system of government in Tibet led by the Dalai Lamas since 1642, which had continued in exile since 1959. In the past that government had a major role in overseeing the selection of each Dalai Lama, but as of this May, the term “Ganden Phodrang” now refers just to the office or estate of the Dalai Lama which manages the affairs of his lineage. The statement addresses the future role of this institution, now that it involves a largely religious figure distinct from the Tibetan government. But in practice the statement is of much greater significance than that implies, because the Dalai Lama remains the symbolic heart of Tibetan nationhood—a role noted in the exiles’ new constitution. His ability to arrange for a smooth succession is of far greater importance to Tibetan people, and therefore to Chinese policy-makers, than is the Tibetan government.

The fact that the announcement followed a meeting of Tibetan religious leaders of all schools also has an important implication: it suggests that the Dalai Lama has sought the agreement of all the main religious leaders of Tibetan Buddhism for the new succession system. The Dalai Lama may be discreetly realigning the role of future Dalai Lamas to make them less closely identified with his own school or sect, that of the Gelugpas. This reflects the Dalai Lama’s ongoing effort over several decades to counter the strong sectarian tradition among Tibetan Buddhists, one which is often found among western followers, too.

The Selection of the Next Dalai Lama

One of the main messages of the September 24th statement is that only the Dalai Lama or the managers of his lineage can decide on his successor and the method of selection. As expected, it states categorically that a successor cannot be selected “by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China” apart from the Dalai Lama and those he has appointed as his lineage authorities. It adds that the details of the selection procedure for the Dalai Lama’s successor will be announced in about 14 years time, when the Dalai Lama will be around 90 years old. It thus discusses only the likely methods of selection, not the identity of the person who will be selected. This move seems designed to convey the Dalai Lama’s confidence about the long-term prospects for implementing a successful hand-over, and gives him plenty of time to get Tibetans used to the new procedure that he is proposing.

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By Sebastian Veg

A century ago, China’s 1911 Revolution ushered in a constitutional monarchy, rapidly followed by the proverbial “first Republic in Asia,” with Sun Yat-sen as its short-lived first president. Although political change had been expected, the revolution itself came as something of a surprise at the end of a decade of political reforms known as the “New policy” (新政 xinzheng) by the Manchu court, which had already largely transformed the organization of the Chinese state. The abolition of the century-old system of civil service examinations, the election of various provincial-level assemblies (albeit by a very small franchise) which fostered the power of the local gentry, the establishment of modern schools and universities, and the influx of western commodities and techniques under the motto “Chinese learning as substance, Western learning as function” (中學為體,西學為用 zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong) all took place during the last years of Qing rule. When the revolution finally occurred, it came as the icing on the cake of an incremental institution-building process that had taken place over the preceding decade.

However, the top-down reforms launched by the court throughout the 1900s were at the same time being outpaced by the growing radicalization of China’s intellectuals, many of whom spent this decade in Japan. While Kang Youwei’s idea of a constitutional, Confucian monarchy had appeared as revolutionary in 1898, by 1911 Kang was seen by most progressive thinkers and activists as a hopeless and eccentric reactionary. Even Liang Qichao, one of the most prominent and widely-read advocates of constitutionalism and an admirer of the British system, was outflanked by the cultural and political vanguard represented by activists like Zhang Binglin (Zhang Taiyan), the editor of the influential Minbao 民報 published in Tokyo. Zhang and many of his followers, in particular the group known as the “Tokyo anarchists”, criticized what they saw as the pro-Western bias in the institution-building process and advocated a different kind of democracy, rooted in social equality and inspired by archaic and often esoteric Chinese thinkers.

The 1911 revolution, whether because of the initial weakness of its proponents or through a series of unlucky historical coincidences, rapidly led to the restoration of Yuan Shikai to the imperial throne. The long-anticipated democratic system and the greater social and civic equality that was to result from it remained elusive, prompting a decade of soul-searching among China’s intellectuals. The most famous product of these reflections was without doubt Lu Xun’s Ah Q, the epitome of a revolutionary who is unequipped and unable to become a citizen. How were China’s Ah Qs to be made into citizens? This became the foremost preoccupation of the country’s intellectual elite for many years, setting them apart from the world of power politics. The New Culture movement, with its emphasis on education and individual autonomy, was followed by cultural agendas that became increasingly utopian as politics became more cynical and polarized. When Duan Qirui sent his troops into Beijing, Lu Xun’s brother Zhou Zuoren took his Beijing University students to study in the countryside, emulating the Japanese “New Village movement.” As Chiang Kai-shek massacred supposed communist sympathizers, Liang Shuming set up utopian rural schools in China’s remote backwaters. “Real” democracy was always seen as outside the corrupt institutions of party politics; however, the utopian vision of “fostering citizens” never led to the desired changes in the political system. Similarly to Weimar Germany, the Republic of China was a time of great freedom and intellectual ferment, but also a Republic without republicans, a regime whose institutions no one was prepared to invest in.

In this manner, mistrust of institutions remained strong among critical Chinese intellectuals for most of the century, and was notably instrumentalized to great effect by Mao during the Cultural Revolution – which is not to say that “organic” intellectuals did not crave recognition from the state when the opportunity arose. However, it was only after the beginning of Reform and Opening up (改革開放 gaige kaifang) that the Chinese elite again warmed to the theme of institution building: throughout the 1980s – a decade of intellectual ferment and political reform in many ways similar to the 1900s – the feeling dominated that an institutional compromise was possible between inner-Party reformers and idealistic intellectuals. After the violent crackdown of the 1989 student movement, a similar pattern emerged: rather than embarking on an uncertain long march through the institutions, many of China’s foremost critical thinkers once again took refuge in other realms: academia, legal activism, grassroots civil society organizations, personal investigations of recent history, documentary films, or emigration. Only Liu Xiaobo, loyal to the spirit of the 1980s, reaffirmed his commitment to formulating an institutional alternative, demonstrated most clearly in the Charter 08 he co-authored. On the whole, however, institutional reform was seen as both hopeless and useless (a point tragically demonstrated by Liu’s arrest) and the real battles were elsewhere.

It took almost one century from the fall of the Bastille until French citizens of all political stripes could to come together at the funeral of Republican icon Victor Hugo, a sign, according to historian François Furet’s famous pronouncement, that “Revolution had entered port.” This has not happened in China. To the contrary, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with its carefully crafted historical narrative, took great pains to avoid sketching out a possible political consensus on how to define the nation in the 20th century, closely confining itself to the cultural bric-a-brac of its “5,000-year history.” This absence of even a minimal consensus on the nature of the Chinese polity speaks eloquently to the open legacy of 1911. One hundred years on, the divide between an institutional apparatus that seems less and less amenable to reform and an aspirational form of democracy that has not yet found a satisfactory institutional translation on the Chinese mainland remains as deep as ever.

Sebastian Veg is the director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (Hong Kong). He has published a monography on Lu Xun and European modernism, and his current research interests are in the area of literature and intellectuals in modern and contemporary China.


Many thanks to the members of the informal Xinhai Geming reading group that’s formed at UC Irvine this term for collecting the following links concerning the one hundredth anniversary of the 1911 Revolution:

• With perfect timing, China Heritage Quarterly, which has established itself as a must-read publication for those interested in the varied ways the past can influence the present in the PRC, is up with an issue devoted to the Xinhai Revolution. True to form, it is made up of pieces that come at the topic from varied angles, from a mix of talented writers with a deep understanding of China’s history.

• For a very useful precis of key issues—from contrasting view of 1911 on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait to reasons Beijing might be playing down the anniversary just now—see this at the Economist.

“Fear of Dragons,” an op-ed by Yu Hua on the current administration’s nervousness about marking the anniversary. “In the end,” he writes, “the celebration has revealed less about 1911 than about Beijing’s fear of change. Sanctioned commemorative displays tend to be showy distractions that avoid any reference to the transformative effects of the revolution.”

• In Chinese, this website covers one hundred important figures relating to the Xinhai Revolution.

• If you’d prefer a slightly different angle on the revolution, check out one of the new animated features about it. 《民的1911》opened in the PRC recently (trailer here; music video here), while《孫中山傳》will debut in Taiwan on Monday’s anniversary (see news reports about the movie here and here).

• For readers with more time, see this excerpt from David Strand’s new book, An Unfinished Republic: Leading by Word and Deed in Modern China (UC Press, 2011), an impressive work with a 1911 connection. Now is also the perfect time to read (or re-read) a classic about the 1911 era, Lu Xun’s “The Real Story of Ah Q” (perhaps in China Beatnik Julia Lovell’s 2010 translation).

By Michelle Tsai

China’s rapid rise has long been heralded, but now that the country is economically leaving industrialized nations in its wake, many are trying to make sense of its success. A recent Forbes article, “Inside the Sinosphere: China’s New ‘Diaspora’ Economy” by columnist Joel Kotkin, depicts a monolithic “Sinosphere,” or ethnic Chinese sphere of influence, that relies on the overseas Chinese for funding and technological leadership. Not only is this view simplistic and misguided, but it is also stokes atavistic fears of a “yellow peril.”

Kotkin, who co-authored the piece with Hee Juat Sim of the Civil Service College of Singapore, attempts to link together several unrelated points, but I will focus only on the concept of the Sinosphere and the role that ethnic Chinese people outside of China play in China’s rise.

There are indeed ethnic Chinese people in practically every corner of the world, but this doesn’t mean there is a singular Sinosphere to speak of. Kotkin has lumped PRC nationals with Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Chinese-Americans, Chinese-Australians, and so on. He even calls Hong Kongers and Taiwanese “expatriates” from China.

In just a few sentences, Kotkin traces the growth of this Sinosphere from Zheng He, the Chinese admiral who led voyages as far as East Africa, to what he calls the “diasporic colonies” to, finally, the successful Chinese immigrants in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Kotkin conflates more than 600 years of Chinese immigration to disparate destinations and suggests, wrongly, that ethnic Chinese the world over share an agenda with the Middle Kingdom.

Today the Chinese diaspora includes tens of millions of ethnic Chinese living outside of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But they and their forefathers did not leave China—whether recently or centuries before—in order to expand Chinese state power. (In addition, the Chinese who settled in Southeast Asia were immigrants, and not, as Kotkin suggests, Chinese colonials.)

Like many immigrants, the vast majority of the Chinese diaspora ventured beyond China’s borders for personal reasons, usually because they were poor and economic opportunities elsewhere held greater promise, or because they longed to escape a chaotic, poor, or war-torn China. Even though many in the diaspora have maintained aspects of the Chinese language and culture, it is dangerous to equate ethnicity with nationality or allegiance. As much as Kotkin, the author of Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy, prefers to view the global economy in terms of ethnic groups—the Jews, the Chinese, the Japanese, etc.—the Chinese “tribe” is one that consists of different factions.

Kotkin makes the valid point that investments from Hong Kong and Taiwan helped launch China’s manufacturing engine in the 1980s, and are helping to propel China’s economy forward today. But he mistakenly assumes these investments are driven by a desire to expand the sphere of Chinese influence, and that China relies on these Chinese “expatriates” to expand its economy.

Hong Kong and Taiwan have injected cash into China because they hoped to access the domestic Chinese market and, until a few years ago, benefited from lower tax rates—not because they shared an agenda with Beijing and worked toward an ethnic Chinese domination of the global economy. Hong Kong and Taiwan had many reasons for investing more capital in China (and earlier, too) than Western nations, chief of which were that they were next-door neighbors, foresaw huge market opportunities, and could easily do business in China because of a shared language and culture.

Kotkin highlights the fact that Hong Kong and Singapore have increased their investments in China, as if this is evidence of a collusive Sinosphere. But is the increase at all surprising, given that China has been the top destination for global foreign direct investment since 2002? Throughout Asia, countries are playing up their connection to China in order to access the Chinese market—just look at the revival of Mandarin in Indonesia, or at Kevin Rudd, the Chinese-speaking former prime minister of Australia.

China’s economy would likely continue to gallop ahead even without investments from Hong Kong or Taiwan. It is not, as Kotkin suggests, that China relies on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore for capital or technological leadership. Rather, these are the economies that have managed to benefit the most from China’s rise.

Michelle Tsai is a New York City-based writer whose work has appeared at Foreign Policy, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal.

By Julia Lovell

I’ve spent the past three years researching the importance of the Opium Wars to China; for it is hard to underestimate the passions and sensitivities that the topic can provoke. The wars remain the founding episodes of modern Chinese nationalism, and the start of China’s terrible “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of the West. In 2006, China’s leading liberal weekly, Freezing Point, was shut down, after running an article by an academic called Yuan Weishi that challenged textbook orthodoxy on the Second Opium War. The entire incident unleashed an official and popular outcry. The article, the propaganda bureau pronounced, “viciously attacked the socialist system [and] attempted to vindicate criminal acts by the imperialist powers in invading China. It seriously distorted historical facts; it seriously contradicted news propaganda discipline; it seriously damaged the national feelings of the Chinese people…and created bad social influence.” One nationalist some way outside the government denounced the article as “pure treachery. [Yuan Weishi] was desecrating his own ancestors’ graves…He should have been drowned in rotten eggs and spit.”

In China, then, the opium trade and the wars that Britain fought to defend it in the mid-nineteenth century are a festering national wound. But India, to name but one territory, was also directly and adversely affected by these historical events. It was there that British overseers managed the opium monopolies that generated exports of the drug to China through the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, more than a fifth of the Raj’s income came from opium; this represents the systematic exploitation of India’s natural productivity to enrich the British government and private individuals. And as I examined the deep emotional impact of opium on China, I wanted to know whether other parts of Britain’s narco-empire—all equally entitled to feel fury at Britain’s misdemeanours—shared China’s resentment. This summer, I travelled to Delhi and Mumbai, to talk about the Opium War, and to explore differing attitudes to a shared history.

In the weeks before I arrived in India, memories of the opium trade had been stirred by the publication of River of Smoke, the second volume in Amitav Ghosh’s fictional trilogy set in India and China, against the backdrop of the Opium War. The first two books have richly evoked the atmosphere of the opium trade and its multicultural hodge-podge of English, Scottish, Indian and Chinese participants. But Ghosh seems to have felt that he was writing into a vacuum: modern India’s relationship with opium, he has complained, is enveloped in an “extraordinary silence…In any Western country,” he has observed, “by now you’d have had 200 books about it. There are books about sugarcane, about indigo, about cotton, but [opium] was the most important sector of the economy and the only person writing about it is [historian] Amar Farooqui!” Ghosh has equated a general Indian indifference to the opium trade with a broader lack of concern over the legacies of imperialism. “A consequence of Indians’ lack of interest in history is that the colonial experience begins to look more benign than it was.” My first encounter in Delhi seemed to confirm his diagnosis of Indian amnesia over the opium trade. Just off the plane, I was escorted out of the airport by a young man from the hotel with exquisite English. He asked me what had brought me to India. His forehead wrinkled when I mentioned the Opium War. What is opium? he wanted to know. His excellent Anglophone education had not seen fit to supply him with this piece of vocabulary.

David Sassoon Library in Mumbai

Mumbai boomed on money from the opium trade in the nineteenth century. Landmarks of neo-imperial or Asiatic Gothic architecture—the tall white colonnades of the Asiatic Society (now Mumbai’s Central Municipal Library); the rusty brick arches of the David Sassoon Library—are striking reminders of how profitable this Asian commerce was; several of such buildings were paid for by China-trading philanthropists. But there seemed to be limited awareness of Mumbai’s past connections with the opium trade, as I wandered about these now-decaying structures. A phlegmatic librarian in the Asiatic Society pointed up at an enormous hole in the ceiling: “That nearly killed me when it came down.” The Society’s once pompous interior—imperial pillars with frothy gold tops, statues of nineteenth-century British worthies—has been thoroughly desacralised by the readers snoozing over the tables and the shelves of down-to-earth titles. (The domestic science section seemed particularly well stocked, featuring practical volumes such as Step-by-step Garnishes, Rugs: All You Need to Know, and Ultimate Casserole.) “I know nothing about opium. Or the Opium War,” the librarian told me. “It was all such a long time ago. I like British people. They’re very good in their hearts and in their minds and they have lots of good ideas. They built lots of good buildings and government institutions here.”

I wondered if the psychology behind this forgetfulness was a little more complex than Ghosh allowed for. While in India, I tried to explain the resentment that memory of the Opium War and the “century of humiliation” can provoke in China, and asked if there was similar anger directed at India’s own experiences under British rule. The response that I often received borrowed from the language of psychoanalysis: “India’s over it,” one woman—born two years after Independence—pronounced. India has enough to worry about in the present day, others told me, with corruption scandals and relations with Pakistan. “I used to think that India had a cult of victimhood, but it seems it’s nothing compared to China,” remarked one novelist. “In India, we’ve generally been aware that we’ve been responsible for our own problems. Caste, social problems, the tension between Muslims and Hindus—they’ve always been there; some people might say they were exacerbated by colonialism, but they were always there.” Amongst those who have benefited most from India’s cosmopolitan education system, there was a relaxed openness towards Britain and its colonial legacies. “Diversity is our strength,” one NGO worker told me. “We have good relations with the British now; much better than with Pakistan. And Britain gave us so many things—rule by law, for one.” He told me about a hit stand-up show by the comedian Vir Das he’d seen in Mumbai the previous winter, called The History of India, which had made fun of “some of India’s most sacred cows”—even Gandhi. “Vir presents the funny elements that have been a part of our heritage and how much there was to laugh at in our struggles, how much humor there is in heritage,” its producer has commented. The idea of a Chinese comedian taking a similarly irreverent look at the Century of Humiliation is unthinkable (though India arguably diverts public sensitivities onto discussion of religious issues).

Indian memories of the opium trade were also, I detected, tinged with a degree of guilt. It’s well established that although private British traders got rich on selling opium to China, so did some Indian merchants—and especially Mumbai Parsis. They provided credit for British businessmen; they built ships for the trade; and sometimes they sailed them themselves. A Parsi opium trader in one of Ghosh’s novels expresses their actions pragmatically:

Today the biggest profits don’t come from selling useful things: quite the opposite. The profits come from selling things that are not of any real use…Opium is just like that. It is completely useless unless you’re sick, but still people want it. And it is such a thing that once people start using it they can’t stop; the market just gets larger and larger. That is why the British are trying to take over the trade and keep it to themselves. Fortunately in the Bombay Presidency they have not succeeded in turning it into a monopoly, so what is the harm in making some money from it?

If you look closely enough at the windows of the Bai Avabai Framji Petit Parsi Girls High School in Mumbai, you’ll find an image of an Indian opium clipper inlaid in stained glass. HMS Cornwallis, the ship on which the Treaty of Nanjing was signed, was built in a Parsi yard. An elderly Parsi man approached me after one of my talks: did I think it would be a good idea if leading members of the Parsi community organised themselves into an official delegation to apologise for India’s role in the opium trade? Would that make things better, would it clear things up between China and India?

His comments further reminded me of the unease and suspicion that currently cloud India’s relations with China. Although China often portrays itself as a victim of external aggression (a self-perception reinforced by emphatic commemorations of the Opium War and the Century of Humiliation), several of the Indian journalists I encountered took a very different view. They saw China not as an injured innocent, but as a threatening new imperial power, and were keen to discuss China’s ambitions in the region, alleging in detail that China was plotting to create a trade route to the sea, from its western borders down through eastern India. Memories of China’s war with India in the 1960s were still fresh; and there was considerable anger at China’s financial support of Pakistan.

But nonchalance rather than anger or bad conscience still seemed to dominate Indian attitudes to opium. As I travelled back to my hotel room on my last night in Mumbai, an advert in the lift for something called The Opium Den caught my eye, and the pitch went like this:

First came the flower delivery man.
Then the baby delivery woman.
Then the pizza delivery man.
It’s time to get addicted to each other again, before someone else comes knocking.
Opium Den. VERY ADDICTIVE. An intoxicating fusion of atmosphere, spirits and music that reminds you how it feels to be in love again. Rest assured you’ll be back for more of the same.

The concept was illustrated by a photograph of a glamorous Caucasian couple, grinning exuberantly at each other and generally living the Opium Den dream. I’m probably exaggerating only a little (if at all) when I say that if you set up such an establishment (trading on the word opium for yuppie chic effect) in mainland China, you would get death threats. I exclaimed with surprise. When my fellow passenger asked me what was wrong, I explained my sense of culture shock. He obviously felt that I’d spent too long in China: “Chill out,” he said. “It’s just a bar.”

And, I discovered when I went to have a look, it was indeed just that—filled on a Saturday evening with glamorous young Mumbai things enjoying a drink or a meal in comfortable, tastefully lit surroundings. The books decoratively arranged on the walls (only for atmosphere; no one was reading them) were high-brow: works of Great European Literature (Crime and Punishment; Mill on the Floss) rather than books more usually associated with opium dens – the Collected Sax Rohmer perhaps (Dope, The Yellow Claw, The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, and so on). When I perused the menu, I found the juice section—cucumber, tomato, carrot and celery—also disconcertingly virtuous; I plumped for an innocuous plate of gloupy chicken noodles. While I was waiting for the bill, I idly fell into dispute with my waiter, after I made a remark about the beautifully carved antique ivory opium pipes displayed in a cabinet on the wall. “Oh no, they’re not pipes,” he told me. “They’re flutes.” Opium flutes? “No, no, just regular flutes.” They were definitely opium pipes, but I still needed to pack for my plane back to London later that night, so I let it go.

Julia Lovell is a lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London and author of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China (Picador, September 2011).

Photo from TravelPod.com

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